Sunday, 31 December 2017

Most of Them Are Gone

Tributes flowed in the press when Jack Benny died on December 26, 1974. We’ve reprinted some. Here’s another, this time from the Geneva Daily Times of January 14, 1975. It’s more a eulogy to the past, really. I suspect many readers felt the same way as the writer. Interestingly enough, most of the people on the list appeared at one time on the Benny radio show, including one Spangler Arlington Brugh.

The great radio comedians

(Mr. Cooke is a former Times reporter and desk man.)
When I learned of the passing of Jack Benny, my favorite comedian, I knew that sometime I would write a column about him and about some of the radio, television and movie people I have seen over the years.
Benny of course had no equal in his field. After his death the newspapers, magazines and TV-radio covered his life and accomplishments in detail. All I can add is that years ago his time slot on radio was a must for us. We waited with interest his "Jello again. This is Jack Benny." We wanted to hear from him and his sidekicks — Mary Livingston, Dennis Day, Rochester, Don Wilson, Phil Harris, the man who played department store floorwalker or sometimes a railroad car conductor, and all the others.
Jack's miserliness was on stage only. He was really very generous with his money, it has been said he gave over a million dollars to charity.
What can an ordinary fellow like me say about Benny? We, Laura and I, loved him because he could brighten up our day, our whole week, no matter how difficult things may have been.
Who can forget his running feud with Fred Allen? His famous imaginary railroad, the "Anaheim, Azusa and — Cucamonga?" His dungeon, with moats, wild animals, creaking doors, sirens and burglar alarms, for his money? Whatever became of the gas man who went downstairs to read the meter and never was seen again? Where is his Maxwell automobile now, whose wheezy engine noises were made by Mel Blanc? Do you remember Benny's violin lessons and the anguished French music teacher, also played by Blanc?
These remembrances come out of my own memory, from the radio and TV shows we had seen. I'll never forget them. But actually no one could really imitate the true Benny, with his bland expressions of surprise, pain or pleasure. He could say the one word "Well!" with an intonation that always brought down the house. We of the older generation who were fortunate enough to know radio in the early days thank Benny for many happy hours. His was one of the few radio shows that was made over, intact, into a TV show, without change of cast, plot or meaning.
Jack Benny's death made me think back on some of the other theatrical highliners I had seen over the years, most of whom are now gone.
I mentioned Fred Allen. How well I remember his "Allen's Alley" and the queer characters who lived on this mythical street. I also remember his feud with Jack Benny, each one maligning the other on the air, but the best of friends otherwise. Fred's real name was John Florence Sullivan, a source says.
My father loved to listen to the late Eddie Cantor's radio show and so did I. Eddie was a song and dance man, of course, but also a comedian.
I grew up with Boris Karloff in his various roles as Frankenstein's monster, mad scientist and other weird characters. I saw him gentle down until when, before his death, he played mild loveable parts sometimes. But he always had that rather sinister lisp when he spoke which I never forgot.
A sinister triumvirate, all now deceased, included Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. The trio later added Lauren Bacall who became Bogart's wife in real life.
I like to remember the suave, immaculate appearance of the late Adolphe Menjou, a man of the world it there ever was one. But he didn't come from Paris, London or New York. He was born in Pittsburgh.
A great humorist I really can remember because he didn't die until 1935 was Will Rogers. He had the homespun dialogue down pat, but with a needle in it that could hurt. I saw him on the stage once when he was playing with Ziegfeld's Follies in New York. He talked sense with a twang while he twirled his lariat expertly.
The late Robert Taylor was my idea of a man about town, although he played other roles in the movies too. Somehow, to me at least, he seemed a little out of place as a working roustabout in dirty clothes. I saw him as a matinee idol, dressed in the height of fashion, with at least one lovely lady on his arm. I love Taylor's real name — Spanger Arlington Brugh.
Do you remember Ronald Colman, always fashionably dressed and with a delightful British accent? He came by the accent legally since he was born in Surrey, England. He was one of Jack Benny's friends, both on and off the screen. They had some fine skits together.
Other comedians, now gone, come to mind. Bert Lahr, with his funny laugh, Lew Lehr, another comic of great talent. And one of the tops in the field, Ed Wynn. Ed, if I remember correctly, was called the fire chief because his show was sponsored by an oil company. Ed did something I always wanted to do — he talked through the commercials and said what he thought of them, disbelieving some of the statements. I find myself doing that today as I watch current TV shows and listen to the high pressure commercial messages.
All this has traveled away from Jack Benny. He needs no kudos from me.

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